Winter Field Lab: Snow Hydrology

Sara Elizabeth Gran, Paul Robert Bierman, and Kyle Keedy Nichols


This is a great field activity to implement during late winter or early spring when things have not quite thawed. It integrates basic science with original geohydrological research. Students get to go out into the field and collect their own data from a snowpack. They measure water equivlalent, identify types of snow metamorphism, find evidence of the winter's precipitation patterns, and judge possible snowpack hazards. Back in the lab, students evaluate their data, draw conclusions, and make a report.

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Learning Goals

  • Learn snowpack studying techniques, determine amount of water residing in a snowpack, and compare results to previous data, if any.

Context for Use

This activity is designed for upper-level undergraduate and graduate-level geohydrology courses.

Description and Teaching Materials

Materials The following materials are recommended:
  • Snow shovels
  • Snow tubes
  • Hanging scales
  • Snow kits (including: thermometer, soil knife, and snow-density measurement device)
  • Snow-shoes
  • Altimeters
  • Topographic maps of area
  • Handheld global positioning system (GPS)
  • USDA avalanche handbook

Teaching Notes and Tips

Emphasizing that the students are doing original research and that there are no pre-determined answers to posed questions enhances their interest in the project.


Report due two weeks after field day. Evaluate reports based on the quality of the science, writing, and calculations. In addition to the teacher evaluation, letting class members evaluate and edit another student's report gives students a chance to practice critical evaluation of another's work, which is found to enhance the re-writing process.

References and Resources

  • Gran, S.E., Bierman, P.R., and Nichols, K.K., 1999, Teaching Winter Geohydrology Using Frozen Lakes and Snowy Mountains, Journal of Geoscience Education v. 47, p. 420-427.
  • Pond Hydrology is a related winter field lab activity.